Is the sphere of influence about to crumble?
It was supposed to be the most luxurious and glamorous music festival since the first pop-up glamping site appeared at Glastonbury.
According to promoters, guests would jet out to an idyllic Bahamian private island "once owned by Pablo Escobar", where they would stay in five-star villas, swim in pristine waters and feast on the good life usually reserved for the rich and famous.
But as anyone who's watched the Netflix documentary Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened will tell you, guests were instead plunged into a spectacular nightmare involving tents in a field, wet mattresses and packaged sandwiches.
How could the reality be so different from what they had seen on social media?
Fyre Festival had been billed as a world-class event, and behind it, a world-first advertising plan consisting of almost 100 per cent influencer marketing.
You know, influencers: those people on whom fate has shone so brightly; the chosen ones with the bodies, careers, holidays and social lives so enviable companies actually pay to be associated with their charmed lives.
Fyre's promoters had flown the world's most-followed models, including Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Australia's Shanina Shaik, to the Bahamas to be photographed having the time of their lives.
Fyre Starters, as they were called, posted images and uploaded posts consisting of a simple orange tile, using agreed-upon hashtags and mentioning the festival.
That got everyone's attention.
Influencer endorsement, at the level Fyre Festival engaged, makes a significant dent
in the marketing budget. While the amount the influencers were paid is confidential, it's been widely reported Jenner was paid about $US250,000 for one Instagram post alone.
But it seemed money well spent.
On the day the influencers posted the now-infamous orange tile, general admission tickets for the event reportedly sold out.
But the promoters were never going to be able to deliver on their promise.
On June 30, 2017, Fyre Media Inc CEO Billy McFarland was charged with wire fraud. On October 11, 2018, he was sentenced to six years in prison. Meanwhile, civil cases are stacking up.
Yet, even before the first lawsuit was filed against the promoters, disappointed attendees had turned their attention to those fun-loving, bikini-clad babes who convinced them to part with their cash by frolicking in the crystal-clear waves and sipping exotic cocktails.
The influencers, capitalism's latest addition to its toolbox, had failed spectacularly. Or had they?
"Influencer marketing has actually been around forever," says Victoria Harrison, founder and managing director of Australian influencer marketing company The Exposure Co.
"Marketing has always used brand ambassadors. It's just that now it's moved to social media.
"Influencer marketing is basically word-of-mouth marketing that has been taken online, allowing brands to leverage off the large followings of people.
"What influencer marketing does is leverage the trust followers have of the influencer to help push a particular outcome for a brand, whether that be brand awareness, to sell products or, in the case of Fyre Festival, to get people to come to an event."
Roxy Jacenko, PR powerhouse and founder of influencer management agency Ministry of Talent, says the phenomenon of influencers is a result of our rising reliance on social media.
"I know many people who scroll through Instagram as soon as they open their eyes in the morning," she says. "It's like a sense of FOMO - the fear of missing out on the latest haps of the social world. These influencers have guaranteed eyeballs on their posts, which is golden to brands."
Genevieve Day, founder of Melbourne influencer talent agency Day Management, believes the Fyre Festival debacle revealed the double-edge sword of Instagram influencer marketing.
"There is a high degree of trust between the influencer and their followers," she says.
"Social media gives you an inside look at these glamorous lives, and they candidly share so much behind the scenes."
This intimacy, she says, creates a strong bond between influencers and follower.
"Influencers are so much more than models. They are a personal brand in themselves. It's what sets them apart from being just a face in a campaign. Because of this, brands can tap into their audience, their follower reach, their appeal and 'it' factorwhen aligning with influencers for paid collaborations."
It's also, Day says, what sets them up for an almighty fall when brands they align themselves with are associated with some kind of scandal or bad press.
At the heart of the criticism are the high fees charged by Instagram influencers to recommend a brand.
While not receiving the hundreds of thousands of dollars Fyre Festival influencers were paid for a single post, the cream of Australia's social media crop aren't doing too badly, picking up $150-$5000 a post depending on follower numbers and celebrity status.
But Jacenko knows first-hand the backlash that an influencer can cop for payments.
She was one of the first to identify - and ride - the influencer wave, and in 2014, an investigation revealed she was charging brands $200 to feature in a post on her daughter Pixie's Instagram page.
Condemnation was fierce. It was one thing to let your child have a social media account, another to monetise it.
The same report showed a top blogger at the Ministry of Talent was charging $850 a post. It seemed inconceivable that influencers could be paid for what was perceived as little more than a selfie.
While Fyre Festival influencers rapidly deleted any posts associating them with the failed venture, they have remained tight-lipped about the scandal, with the exception of Hadid,
who posted an apology.
But agents and marketers say anger towards the influencers is misdirected.
"The fact that Fyre Festival flopped and there was actually no festival is the fault of the festival organisers," Harrison says, adding that it's almost impossible to know how good (or not) an event will be.
But she says the Fyre Festival debacle might be the farce that needed to happen for greater public awareness of influencer marketing as well as regulatory change.
"With traditional advertising, we've had the time to put down guidelines, whereas a couple of years ago when influencer marketing really began, it was more of a grey area," Harrison says. "There was confusion about what was paid and what was not paid."
The greatest criticism of Fyre Festival influencers was that many failed to disclose that their posts were paid advertisements.
In the wake of Fyre, Instagram and other social media platforms have tightened regulations around paid endorsements. Posts now must include #ad and tag the company.
"In 2017, the Australian Association of National Advertisers introduced new guidelines," Jacenko says.
"If an influencer is paid to promote something, it needs to be clearly distinguishable. Your followers aren't dumb. You need to be open and honest with your audience."
And Australian Competition and Consumer Commission boss Rod Sims is said to be cracking down on influencers who take payola without properly declaring it.
Harrison says influencers need to think carefully about the products with which they are aligned.
"At the end of the day, their followers need to know that they are able to be trusted," she says.
Day says: "We are incredibly careful with the brands our influencers align with. We are all in it for the long game. Our talent have spent years building up their audiences and that trust.
"We wouldn't want to throw that away over a one-off post for a questionable brand, no matter what the pay cheque."
One of Day Management's top fashion and lifestyle Instagram influencers is Melbourne-based Jess Alizzi, who has about 279,000 followers.
The high level of engagement with her following has led to paid collaborations with brands including Country Road, General Pants, Mecca and Seafolly.
For this 25-year-old, being an influencer is a full-time job and a career she is keen to build on. Her reputation, she says, is its foundation.
"I've created an audience that is really engaged and really believe what I say. I have to protect that," she says.
"My followers don't mind when they see paid posts. They want to follow my journey, and they are happy to see what brands I'm working with."
Fellow influencers The Real Dads of Melbourne are proof that influencers can be a force for good, not just failed festivals and dodgy diet supplements.
The Real Dads are Jarrad and Michael Duggan-Tierney, one of the 6800 Australian same-sex couples with a child, but the only ones who can call themselves influencers.
Every day the duo share their lives raising their son Reid, with their 96,000 Instagram followers.
They have fully disclosed commercial partnerships with big brands such as Disney, Village Cinemas, Woolworths and ANZ, but are committed to promoting things closest to their hearts - love and acceptance.
"The Real Dads of Melbourne document everything about their lives, and it's so beautifully relatable," Day says.
"They have that profile and visibility and they use it to show that their lives are just like everyone else's lives."
INFLUENCERS WHO HAVE GIVEN UP THEIR DAY JOBS
After years spent dreaming of touring the world, Amanda Twine quit her job as an airline safety investigator to become an Instagram influencer and travel blogger.
And so far, she hasn't looked back.
Last year, Twine, 37, visited Japan, Iceland, the Whitsundays, Paris, Morocco and many more exotic locations.
This year, she's already hung out in Hawaii, swum with stingrays in the Maldives and jumped on a plane to Austria to ski.
Her life is the definition of jet set and she has the Instagram page to prove it.
"I was working for Virgin Australia as a safety and risk specialist because I wanted to travel, but I found travel blogging gave me so much more opportunity to see the world," Twine says. "It obviously doesn't pay as much, but I knew I had to give it a go".
In 2015, Twine quit and began working part-time for her husband's fruit business while setting up her website and Instagram account for Fly Stay Luxe.
"I didn't plan to become an influencer," she says.
"But Instagram was essential for driving traffic to my blog.
"It took me a year to get my first collaboration offer, but really it was 2½ years before I actually started getting free travel and sponsorship."
The struggle is now well and truly paying off with multiple collaborations under her belt and a dizzying flying schedule.
Brisbane-based Twine's fanbase is also growing after she was recently announced as an official ambassador for We Are Travel Girls, an online community of travelling women with hundreds of thousands of members.
Her success has brought more opportunities, but she says it's important to always be transparent when it comes to paid advertising.
"Influencers have to be responsible not only to investigate their sponsors' background, but also to make it clear to their audience that they are being paid," she says.
"It's an economic platform and people know that we are sometimes advertising, so influencers shouldn't try and hide it."
Twine also warns other budding entrepreneurs that life as an influencer does have its pitfalls.
"Instagram is a lot of work and it can be cutthroat and superficial," she says.
"Sometimes, I get jet lag and I miss my husband and our two dogs."
The competition is also heating up as more newcomers try their luck.
Six years ago, Amy Darcy started blogging about her workouts for a bit of fun, but Instagram helped turn her pastime into an online empire.
The 28-year-old took up fitness to help with stress while working as a lawyer.
She loved keeping fit and as a hobby set up her Eat Pray Workout website to blog about her experiences.
After initially resisting Instagram, Darcy joined the platform and almost overnight her fanbase began to boom.
Within a year, she was being approached by sponsors wanting her to spruik fitness products and services. After two years, she was able to quit working and live off the social media platform.
"I remember when Instagram came out, I thought, 'Oh geez, I'm finding it hard enough to keep up with Facebook'," Darcy says. "Now I'm kicking myself for saying that.
"Always jump on quick, that's the lesson. I didn't expect to ever have this many people following or interested in what I say."
Several times a week, the mother of one posts a picture of herself working out or snacking on nutritional delights in her hometown of Sydney.
The post is often coupled with a long-form article.
However, Darcy says being an influencer is a lot more than putting up pretty pictures.
She spends a lot of time planning what to post, scouting photo locations, writing and, of course, staying up to date with the latest fitness and nutritional knowledge.
"It does depend what your intention is, but if you're doing it from a business perspective, you become a little bit more stringent," she says.
"You also don't want every post to be sponsored content, as people think you are just advertising all the time.
"I think readers appreciate that is how you can make a bit of money, but they need to get something out of it, too."
Interestingly, Darcy says becoming a mother and expecting her second child have changed how she plans to use the media platform.
This year, she will take on fewer sponsors to avoid being too sales orientated. Instead, she is focusing on building stronger relationships with a smaller, select group of brands and posting more about real life.
"It became a bit too strategised, so I am looking to bring it back to being a little more personal, which I think people appreciate," she says.
"Instagram has allowed me to not have to work, but sometimes I wish I was back in the office because when you leave the office it ends. Unfortunately, it is always on my mind."